Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was refused a censor certificate for being “lady oriented” and exploring women’s sexual fantasies.

A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film Lipstick Under My Burkha is not the first victim of the Censor Board’s snip-happy tendencies. From bra shots in Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif-starrer Baar Baar Dekho to lines like “I have the Indian figure” in Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has repeatedly resorted to chopping off whatever it deems un-sanskaari.

As for Lipstick Under My Burkha, Alankrita’s film has been denied a certificate because “the story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life.” To give you some context, the film tells the story of the sexual awakening of four women (their ages ranging from a teenage college girl to a 55-year-old widow) in Bhopal, who want to break the barriers of the patriarchal society and explore their inner selves. Ratna Pathak Shah’s voiceover in the film’s trailer tells you what the film is all about – “Khandar se ghar ke ek bandh kamre mein Rosy qaid thi… Apne jawaan rangeen armaano ke saath bilkul akeli. (In a dingy room of the old house, Rosy was trapped… Alone with her racy dreams and desires)”

But for the CBFC, sex is that-dark-deed-which-must-not-be-named. And a film on women’s sexuality? How dare you! According to a report in The Times Of India, the 2015 film Badmashiyan faced a bizarre instance of censorship – in a scene where the girl files a complaint of molestation, the words “hum-bistri” had to be muted from her dialogue. The baffling part is that the CBFC had no objection to the same words, when used by the guy.

The CBFC’s reasoning shows the way they think – “lady oriented” films dealing with their fantasies must be locked into a box and thrown into the depths of the ocean, never to be even accidentally stumbled upon. Although it is not really the CBFC, but one man – CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani.

Nihalani has often been accused of forcibly passing his dictatorial decisions off as the call of the Censor Board. But as member Ashoke Pandit’s tweet would show, the decision is not unanimous. “I condemn the denial of #CensorCertificate to @prakashjha27’s film #LipstickUndermyBurkha. Its an act of arrogance by Pahalaj Nihalani (sic),” he tweeted this morning, outraged by the CBFC’s decision to deny Lipstick Under My Burkha a certificate. Nihalani has been shoving sanskaar down our throats for a long time; and even James Bond was not spared. Remember how Daniel Craig’s kiss with Monica Bellucci in 2015’s Spectre was snipped by half?

In an interview with The Hindu in 2015, Nihalani had openly taken on the role of the moral police and said that he does not mind being conservative if his actions are in the “interests of the nation”. “I will give the right kind of content. I will monitor the sensitive things that might harm the society,” he had said, adding, “In the name of modern, we can’t barter our country. We can’t sell our culture.” In the interview, Nihalani self-appoints himself as a guardian of our culture, arguing that youngsters will get a wrong impression if they are exposed to films which do not have, as he calls it, “the right kind of content”. One wonders if that was the rationale behind allowing films like Mastizaade and Great Grand Masti to have a smooth release. Or allowing kisses galore in Befikre because the protagonists are Indians in Paris who do not reflect our sanskaar.

According to The Cinematograph Act, “a film shall not be certified for public exhibition, if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the States, friendly relations with foreign State, public order, decency or morality or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence”. Given that “decency” and “morality” are subjective terms with no set standards, who decides what is unacceptable?

In fact, a report prepared by the Mudgal Committee appointed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to “examine the issues of certification under the Cinematograph Act 1952,” admits that there can never be watertight or rigid guidelines for certifying a film. It’s the context that is of more relevance. “The courts have over the years attempted to grapple, with little success one might add, to give precise meanings to terms such as morality, obscenity and excessive violence etc. These are concepts which are incapable of surgically precise definitions and interpretation of such terms will vary from person to person.”

Keeping this in mind, the entire concept of censorship becomes redundant. Films have fought a bitter battle against the censors and won. 89 cuts were suggested for Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor-starrer Udta Punjab, including the removal of the word Punjab from its title. The Bombay High Court overturned the directive and told the CBFC that its job was to certify, not censor.

And with all the piracy and easy access to the internet, it isn’t effective, anyway.

To give Lipstick Under My Burkha an ‘A’ certificate is understandable, but to ban it altogether is patently unconstitutional. And ridiculous, to say the least.